What’re You Going to Do with Socrates?

By Ian Mosley, Instructor of Latin, School of the Ozarks

Tom was not raised a Christian. Growing up, his family never went to church, never read the Bible together or practiced family prayer or worship. Nevertheless, he was lucky to have two parents who loved him, made sure he got a good education (by their own best lights, of course), and always encouraged his voracious search for truth.

In college, Tom became a Christian. He met a nice Christian girl and they settled down after graduation to start a family together. Eventually, of course, as his kids get older, they begin to wonder about grandma and grandpa, who are still, sadly, not Christians: Tom’s kids may not be able to exactly put their finger on it, but they can tell grandma and grandpa have a different outlook on life from their mom and dad.

Tom is unsure how to talk about this to his kids. On the one hand, he loves his parents a lot, is grateful for many aspects of his upbringing, wants to see the good in his parents whenever possible; on the other hand, how can he properly communicate this appreciation to his kids, while remaining firm on the fact that his parents need Christ? Can he affirm his parents’ goodness while maintaining they are sinners in need of Christ? Or should he be wary of suggesting that anybody can be good in any sense apart from God, thus undermining the crucial importance of the Gospel?

The story of Tom is fictional, but it is a parable of the real dilemma that has faced the church from its beginning, as it emerged from a largely pagan, gentile culture: how to relate to their parent culture, one that was tainted by idolatry and unbelief? Could they see the good in that culture while still maintaining that it needed Christ? Or must they maintain a firmer line between what is pagan (darkness and error) and what is Christian (goodness and light)?

Various church fathers drew a sharper or a vaguer line, and sometimes maintained different standards for different aspects of pagan culture. Tertullian was famously suspicious of the influence of Greek philosophy on Christianity. Augustine, on the other hand, had a dismissive attitude towards pagan literature and Roman history, but considered the neoplatonists to practically be Christians without Christ. St. Basil, for his part, thought pagan literature could be a legitimate source of wisdom, if handled carefully. Aquinas was extremely controversial in his own day for introducing Aristotelian elements into theology—though almost all his contemporaries were comfortable with the influence of Plato. Dante respected the pagan greats enough to put them in a relatively mild section of hell, but Erasmus dared to opine that Cicero might very well be among the blessed.

This controversy remains a lively question in classical Christian education: how precisely should we relate to the “classical” part of that formula? We might delineate two general schools of thought on this issue: the synthetic and the antithetic.

The synthetic perspective is common among Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants. It sees in pagan culture a true though lesser good than the sort that exists in Christianity. It might not be a good sufficient for salvation, but it is real good: real wisdom, real courage, real justice, real temperance existed among the pagans, and many of them represent what is best in natural man. The virtues of a Christian supplement these with divine faith, hope, and charity, without which no man can be saved; but this grace perfects nature, rather than replacing it, to use Thomist language.

The antithetic perspective is more common among evangelicals and is particularly characteristic of the Reformed. Since the Reformed are so prevalent among the movers and shakers in the Association of Classical Christian Schools, it is likely that many people get exposed to this perspective without ever realizing it. For this perspective, nothing in pagan culture can be good, though it can sometimes present things that are approximate to goodness. Even apparently good works among pagans—acts of bravery and self-sacrifice—are tainted by their motivation: they are splendida vitia, or glittering vices, as Augustine terms them.

To take a practical example, let us consider how a synthetic and antithetic Christian educator would handle a figure like Socrates. From the synthetic perspective, Socrates is a hero among pagans—an ingenuous seeker after truth. Peter Kreeft in his textbook, Socratic Logic, says one of his goals is to turn students into “little Socrateses.” Naturally enough, Socrates is no Christian, and the truths he found were far from the complete truth. Nevertheless, Christians can, on this view, learn a lot from him.

Compare this to the essays in the Omnibus I curriculum published by Veritas Press on The Last Days of Socrates (a collection of Plato’s dialogs) and The Best Things in Life (a collection of modern Socratic dialogs writter by the aforementioned Peter Kreeft). This curriculum, being produced by writers and editors of a strongly Reformed outlook, is thoroughly antithetic in its approach to Socrates. For them, Socrates’ search for truth is not ingenuous at all—quite the contrary. Applying Paul’s letter to the Romans to him, they would say he is yet another pagan consciously “suppressing the truth in unrigheousness.” His attempts to set up human reason as an authority do not mitigate but exacerbate his unbelief: the human autonomy presumed  by such an approach is yet another form of idolatry in thought. Obviously the editors and writers behind Omnibus I still think there is something to be learned from Socrates—why else read the books?—but only after a strong antithesis has been drawn between his beliefs and the truth of Christian doctrine.

To responsibly and sincerely weigh these two perspectives against one another would require considerable thought and deliberation. There is not nearly enough debate and discussion going on between these two camps, perhaps because each one tends to talk past the other. Worse, each side has the tendency to apply some ugly names to the other: the antithetic educators are often labeled fundamentalists or fideists, where those of a synthetic persuasion are often dismissed as syncreticists or quasi-idolaters. We should hope that in the future the two sides find a way to hash out their differences without acrimony, and for the glory of God.

6 thoughts on “What’re You Going to Do with Socrates?

  1. I wonder if the antithetical stance comes from an understanding of depravity that holds that man’s rational capacity, rather than his affections, is what was damaged by the fall. Certain Christian thinkers that I have read, such as Van Til or Luther, cast a lot of doubt on man’s ability to be rational outside of Christ, thereby nullifying a lot of these classical works. This view is so damaging — it essentially proposes that Christians are the only people who can think well and disregards any type of “secular” insights by authors such as Aristotle or Socrates, who certainly have contributed much to our knowledge and insight about the world. God created the world to make himself known, and anyone who can observe things astutely can make valuable contributions to the world of knowledge, even if the one making the observations does not understand their ultimate end of revealing Christ.


    1. Thanks for your comment — you raise some pretty intriguing points. Something like the antithetic perspective does seem to follow very readily from a doctrine like the “noetic effects of sin,” though I am unsure whether it requires it. The question of whether our rational faculties were affected by the fall is very interesting to me. It does seem as though it is possible to reason well or poorly, and that sin makes us more likely to reason poorly, to engage in something like what psychologists call “rationalization.” Is admitting this the same as admitting that there are noetic effects of sin? Even if there are noetic effects of sin, can we nevertheless hold that it is possible to reason well, even for the unregenerate? After all, even believers are not totally free from the concupiscence which makes us inclined to reason poorly, it seems to me…


  2. I understand the positions you’re presenting here. However, taking into account the Kuyperian tradition that shapes much of Reformed thinking, I’m not sure this sweeping generalization accurately represents the “Reformed tradition”. I recently read Wisdom and Wonder: Common Grace in Science and Art which certainly articulates a different perspective.


    1. Thanks for your comment. Are you saying that Kuyper represented a Reformed version of the synthetic perspective? Or that he steers some sort of middle ground between synthesis and antithesis? In any case, it was not my intention to completely identify the Reformed with antithetic thinking, any more than I would identify synthetic thinking with the mainline churches. But it does seem to me that either perspective does predominate in those traditions, respectively.


      1. Three things: first, this was an excellent post discussing the various viewpoints often found within our classical circles, and urging both sides in this debate to have an irenic, Christ-honoring discussion of their viewpoints. That both sides may have valuable and substantive rejoinders, and not merely rhetorical one to the other is too often overlooked.

        Second, I would definitely say that Kuyper seems to be, in your categories, more in the tradition of “synthetic” than “antithetic” (but, as mentioned above, his less well-known interpreter, Cornelius van Til, is certainly in the “antithetic” camp; they both do base some of their thought on what they call the “antithesis”). I say this about Kuyper because of his very expansive views of common grace (which were a subject of debates in mid-20th century Dutch Reformed thinking).

        Third, was the quote from Basil from his “Address to Young Men on Greek Literature?”


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